When "Save Seven Locks Coalition" member Geoffrey Wolfe took the podium Nov. 9 at a hearing on school construction plans, school officials probably knew what was coming.
"[Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry] Weast has cited the County Executive's request for school land that could be used for affordable housing as one reason for closing the Seven Locks School," Wolfe said to Weast and the Board of Education. "But why even consider surplusing any school when there are more than 17,000 county students in portable classrooms?"
Weast appeared to nod subtly in agreement.
AT A CONTINUATION of the hearing the following night, Weast stated for the record that during his tenure as superintendent, he will not recommend that Seven Locks be surplused, putting a lid on the two-year-old Pandora's box of school issues in Potomac.
Weast's comments were also released as a written statement, bearing his signature.
Weast said that the future use of the Seven Locks site will be determined after assessing the school system's needs. It could remain an operating elementary school, or be used as a holding school to house students whose schools are under construction, a special education center, or an administrative building.
But without Weast's recommendation to surplus, the school site will remain in MCPS' inventory.
"I think Board members have long believed that we probably would not be disposing of Seven Locks because we don’t know what the future will bring," Board President Patricia O'Neill said in an interview this week. "Dr. Weast had said to me that we will not be under his watch recommending the disposition of Seven Locks [and] I thought it was better to state it publicly and get it out there."
"Save Seven Locks" applauded Weast's decision in a statement Nov. 12, adding that it is "mindful of the potential for future policy changes" and would like to work with MCPS in determining the site's future use.
Community concerns that MCPS might give up the Seven Locks site date back to February, 2004. Prior to that, the school system had planned a renovation and addition to the school, but it reversed that plan and decided to build a "replacement school" on nearby Kendale Road instead, citing cost savings.
In a memo to the Board of Education a month later, Weast stated that if the Kendale school is built, "I am inclined to recommend that the Seven Locks site be transferred to the county for workforce housing."
The school recieved design and funding approval starting last year and is slated to open in August, 2007.
The board also passed a resolution stating that MCPS would value of the Seven Locks site to fund the Kendale school, relying on a memorandum of understanding with the county, which was in the midst of an overhaul to its affordable housing program and actively seeking sites to build on. (For an extended history of the issue, see box.)
WEAST'S STATEMENT came as community opposition to the possible sell-off — and sometimes poisonous accusations of public officials — were reaching a fever pitch.
“I am very concerned about the decisions you have made and the manner in which you have made these decisions,” Seven Locks PTA president Harlivleen Gill said in testimony the night before Weast's statement. “We expect the school board to be impartial and transparent in its dealing with the community and I am disturbed that it has been neither.”
The Seven Locks issue hardly dominated Wednesday’s hearing. The seven speakers opposing a possible sell-off were among 38 individuals and civic group representatives and 18 school cluster representatives that testified to the Board.
But the atmosphere at the hearing reflected a changing environment for community activism fueled largely by the planning fiasco in Clarksburg. Developers of a new town center there were found to have violated height and spacing requirements and to have failed to provide promised amenities and affordable housing units.
A Clarksburg community group uncovered the lapses, which have led the County Council and Park and Planning Commission to launch investigations into their oversight and accountability practices.
The largest contingent of parents at the CIP hearing was from the Clarksburg area—there to support a particular boundary option for the new Clarksburg High School and ask that the county expedite opening all four grades.
The Clarksburg parents led the applause when speakers addressed Seven Locks.
Sandy Vogelgesang, a leader of the Save Seven Locks Coalition, said that was no coincidence.
“We joined the Clarksburg Accountability Coalition. We’re very actively supporting them, because we think these issues are related,” she said. “The core issue is accountability.”
The Clarksburg affair had propelled Save Seven Locks’ claims that Seven Locks’ fate has already been sealed in behind-the-scenes deals between officials and developers.
In Nov. 9 testimony, Ralph Miller of the Deerfiled-Weathered Oaks Citizens Association made reference to an Office of Legislative Oversight report on the Clarksburg planning lapses.
“We are very concerned with recent information that has come to light, particularly as it relates to the relationship between developers and public officials in Montgomery County. Any decision to sell public land to a private developer will be met with the highest degree of scrutiny,” he said.
But no one produced any evidence to corroborate those claims, and the accusations have infuriated some leaders.
"Someone said we were taking contributions from developers. I was quite offended by those accusations," O'Neill said. "I said please, go take a look at my campaign finance report. Believe me, there’s not special interest money in there. Most of my money is $25 checks from my PTA friends."
O'NEILL SAID that Save Seven Locks members had overlooked the most compelling evidence of all — the fact that the Board of Education has recently voted to either retain or reopen several other school sites.
"Look at our record," she said. "We need school buildings, and to make permanent solutions that close of school buildings is just wrong."
She said she hoped Weast's statements will ally community concerns.
"Sometimes rumors kind of take on a life of their own," she said. "The conspiracy theorists [were] definitely working overtime."